x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

It feels good to be Sinatra, but it pays to play second fiddle

In Hollywood, like everywhere else, sometimes you take a stand and sometimes you must be pliable. They challenge is to know which times are which.

After I wrote my first real script for a television show - meaning the first script that anyone actually paid me to write - my agent called me up.

"I just read your script," my agent said. "And I love it. Love it. It's funny, and wise, and true, and just perfect."

"Thanks," I said.

"Besides," he added, "you'll fix it in the second draft."

"I thought you said it was perfect," I said.

"Oh, baby," my agent replied, "nothing is perfect. Everyone is going to have notes and suggestions for changes. Everyone is going to want to chime in. Do you want to hear my ideas for changes to make?"

"No," I said.

"You're being passive-aggressive," my agent said.

"Really?" I answered. "I was trying to be aggressive-aggressive."

"Look, this is reality time, OK? Everyone is going to have notes. Some suggestions you take. Some you fight."

"Whose do I take?" I asked. I always like to get the bad news first.

"The studio's, of course. And the network's. And mine."

"That doesn't leave a lot of other options. Whose suggestions do I fight?"

"How should I know?" my agent said. "It's like that Frank Sinatra song, what was the name of that one? Oh, right. I Did it Their Way."

For the record - and I hope this is an unnecessary clarification - the precise name of the Sinatra song is My Way. After a long career working in the entertainment industry, however, I do understand completely how my agent could have missed the point of the song.

In Hollywood, we make a lot of movies and television shows about people who do things "their way", but when it comes time for us to do things, we're not so brave or individualistic. We compromise and adjust. We take suggestion and notes. We cut scenes we love and replace them with scenes suggested by audience polling and focus-group market research.

Of course, everyone in Hollywood dreams about having a Sinatra moment - a moment when you get a note or a request from the studio or the network (change this character, make the mum younger, add a dog, don't mention cancer) - and you dig in your heels and simply refuse to compromise.

These don't happen often. Filmmaking is an art form, of course, but it's a lot more expensive than, say, a six-dollar set of oil paints and a blank piece of canvas. The art form we've chosen requires millions of dollars worth of expensive equipment and hundreds of people to create even a 30-minute television show. Studios routinely spend $3 million (Dh11 million) on a pilot project - that is, they spend a lot of money just to discover whether it's worth spending even more.

So when the people paying the bills - the studio, the network - have a few thoughts about the script, the smart move is to listen.

But every writer has a moment in his personal career history when he just said no. We're doing it "My Way". And when you tell the executives, "I will not make the mum younger, and I will not give her a dog, and I will give the little boy cancer. And it'll be funny," that's called a Sinatra moment.

The problem with those moments is that, later, when you're watching a rough cut of the show, it's possible to hear a little voice inside your head saying, "I wish the mum was younger, and had a dog. And the little boy's story is just depressing."

But by then it's too late. That's the problem with Sinatra moments: you can never take them back.

So if every writer has had a Sinatra moment, he's also had a Peter Lawford moment. Peter Lawford was Frank Sinatra's go-along-get-along pal, an affable and compliant mini-star in the Sinatra galaxy, the one who never made trouble, who was always willing, who blended effortlessly into the background.

Lawford never refused to comply. Lawford always caved in without a fight. In other words, he never missed an opportunity to sing I Did it Their Way.

The trick to surviving in the entertainment business is knowing whether a situation calls for Frank Sinatra - tough, uncompromising, "I did it my way" - or Peter Lawford - super-serviceable, spineless. Most situations call for one or the other. There isn't much middle ground in the entertainment business, or probably any other business, either.

 

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood